A couple of other miniseries I’ve recently completed — and that wrapped up not long ago — are Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra’s Colder and Tim Seeley and Josh Emmons’s Ex Sanguine. Not only do both titles share common ground through their publisher, Dark Horse Comics, but they are also good to pair together in terms of their content and genre engagements. Both are horror narratives, both revolve around undead or non-mortal figures, both concern serial killers of some sort, both play on vampirific themes, and both take place in liminal spaces between worlds. What made these two miniseries so enjoyable, outside of the story and the art, is their refusal to play into current popular horror trends, such as zombie narratives. (Okay, okay. Perhaps Ex Sanguine could be accused of jumping on the almost equally hot vampire bandwagon, but the questions that Seeley poses are more sophisticated than those found in current teen bloodsucking angst.) They do their own things, and they are largely successful in their executions.
Although the story is set in current times, Tobin and Ferreyra’s Colder begins mid-twentieth century in a Massachusetts mental asylum. They will briefly return to the 1940s at various points in the series, but the creators do a pretty good job at balancing the past with the present, the antiquated with the modern, and distinguishing clearly between those times…with one exception. The protagonist, Declan Thomas, sports an unkept and grungy look, à la 2012, even when represented in 1941. This kind of visual anachronism is slightly annoying — Why did the artist overlook this? Was Ferreya trying to say that Declan is a man out of time? — but it’s a relatively minor point and doesn’t mar the overall comic. The Declan that we see throughout the series, the Declan of our own times (and who has miraculously not aged since the 1940s), is introduced as an invalid and semi-comatose man under the personal care of Reece Talbot, a nurse who has taken him into her home. She lives a predictable and boring life, but she decided to become Declan’s guardian so as to give him a stable environment to quietly live out — or rather, to sit out in an insentient way — what’s become of his existence. And what confounds Reece is that Declan’s body temperature is significantly colder than it should be, thus, the title of the miniseries. As you might expect, Declan comes out of his cold, withdrawn state — you could say that he warms up to Reece — and it’s the developing relationship between the two that provides the narrative thrust of the story. That, and the deadly antics of Nimble Jack, a weird otherworldly figure who we see in the opening pages of the first issue and the reason for Declan’s cold, comatose state. Nimble Jack feeds on the souls, or the mental energies, of the psychologically unbalanced…which is why the miniseries opens in an asylum. His hunger, as it is described, is insatiable, so in this way, Nimble Jack becomes a truly frightening monster. He senses in Declan a special mental power, one that teeters on the edges of insanity but at the same time is able to cure other psychological cases of their delusions. But as Declan uses his abilities to help others, he physically becomes colder. From the time he first meets him in 1941, Nimble Jack plays with Declan and teases him, cat-and-mouse style, so as to further unhinge him mentally, thereby tenderizing or making succulent his “dinner.” We begin to get a sense of this in the first issue. The remaining four issues in the miniseries are basically Declan’s attempts to escape from Nimble Jack’s grasp, Reece’s unwitting fall into Jack’s control, Jack’s increasingly bizarre antics within the unstable space between reason and insanity, and Declan’s efforts to save both Reece and himself from Nimble Jack’s “hunger.”
The series is fast-paced and filled with mind-bending images. Juan Ferreya’s art is wonderful, expressive and at times truly disturbing. The cover image of issue #1 really says it all. And I’m particularly struck by the character of Nimble Jack, both the way he is fleshed out and the manner in which Ferreya draws him. He really comes across as a nightmarish figure. His nonchalance and playfulness make him more horrific than if he had been written as a more tradition, or predictable, monster. And again, Ferreya’s visual representations underscore the psychological macabre at work here. I would guess that Dark Horse plans on collecting these issues as a trade, but I haven’t seen any solicits or plans for this yet. When they do, then it’s a book I’d recommend. And of course, the original five issues are out there floating around.
The other miniseries, Ex Sanguine, is interesting by comparison, and engaging in its own right. This is one of Tim Seeley’s newer horror titles, the other being Revival. Both of these recent comics — one a five-issue miniseries and the other an ongoing — are like a one-two punch of creative energy, coming after a title that Seeley is much better known for, Hack/Slash, and a series that just recently came to an end. By Seeley’s own admission, the formula of Hack/Slash is similar to its probable audience, uncomplicated and more visceral, a combination of the undead and T&A (Cassie Hack is often shown scantily clothed and in suggestive poses). When Andy and I interviewed Tim on The Comics Alternative last fall, he suggested as much. At that time Revival had just begun, and Ex Sanguine hadn’t yet seen its first issue. Now that we see more of what Seeley has been up to in addition to, and now after, Hack/Slash, I can truly say that I’m excited for what he has in store for the future. The ongoing title, what he bills as “rural noir,” is fascinating, and it’s one of those comics that I continue to get on a monthly basis. It’s a sophisticated narrative that has many moving parts, and it’s certainly not formulaic. The same can be said for Ex Sanguine. While the miniseries may tap into recent popular interest in vampire stories — e.g., Twilight, True Blood, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter — it resists falling into any predictable patterns. The protagonist, Saul Adams — a name suggestive of firsts, but ironically given to a character with eternal life, and thus displays the jaded attitudes of a “last man” — is a vampire who is bored with undead existence. The more “blood sucking” or monster-like figure, at least at first, is Ashley, an emotionally unstable killer who admits to Saul,
Ever since I was young, there’s been something in me trying to get out. A creature that fills me for just a few amazing moments before abandoning me again. … I ride it. Use it to get what I want. To get to the truth. There’s just a lot of emotion when the monster brushes the surface, you know? Sometimes I leak.
This “truth” that she wants to get at is just that: the honesty of daily living, of seeing people as they actually are. We find out that her family life growing up was filled with deceptions and fabrications, so she’s on a mission to fight the kind of lies that screwed up her childhood. That’s why she’s attracted to Saul as he actually is, a blood-drinking eternal. Their relationship becomes seductive and sexual — this is a vampiric relationship, after all, and here as in Hack/Slash, Seeley’s women are provocatively drawn, and cleavage, underwear, and BDSM imagery isn’t unusual. And the vampiric trope is given an even further twist through the presence of Quinn, a female detective (and another example of eye candy) who, we come to find out later in the miniseries, believes in vampires and claims to have been the victim of one in the past. Without giving anything away, the people in this narrative who you think might be the monsters aren’t the real monsters in this series, and normality turns out to be more of a breading ground for terror than otherwise. Indeed, the success of this miniseries rests on Seeley and Emmons’s confounding of expectations. I’d go even further and call Ex Sanguine a twisted and dark morality tale. Ashley’s insistence on truthfulness, albeit couched in a blood and obsession, becomes a quest that we’re invited to sympathize with. The same goes for Saul, whose undead state comes across more as an affliction than a source of horror. Ex Sanguine is a different, more sophisticated vampire narrative, and it’s just another example (along with Revival) of his growth as a writer. Let’s hope that Tim Seeley continues to push the boundaries of the horror and supernatural genres, surprising us with more than just slashers and bloody bats.